On September 1, 2020, issue 31&2 contributor Maxim Loskutoff published his debut novel, Ruthie Fear. Copper Nickel‘s consulting fiction editor Alexander Lumans conducted the following interview with Loskutoff.
How did Ruthie Fear come to be your novel’s protagonist? What told you that Ruthie Fear should detail the majority of her life—as Ruthie says about her own experience, “How long and strange life was”?
It’s strange to say, but I didn’t feel like I had much choice in the matter. I wrote a short story about Ruthie back in 2014 and thought I was done but she just kept talking to me. Night and day for years. I resisted at first, then I wrote a couple more short stories about her, then I realized it had to be a novel. At its best moments, writing feels more like dictating to me. Like I’m just an open conduit that a spirit is speaking through, and Ruthie was the strongest spirit I’ve ever encountered. She had so much to say, about the west, Montana, the history of the place, what it is to be alive today, and yes, how long and strange our existence is.
Throughout her life, Ruthie contends with the dangerous toxicity expressed by the men around her—father, boyfriends, strangers, and many others. How did you navigate this subject matter in such a way that feels undeniably essential but also not overly didactic?
I often write through anger. Growing up in Montana, there were a lot of men I was furious with, for the way they treated the land, the animals, each other. But when I write about them, I inevitably pass through this anger. Rutherford, Ruthie’s father, was meant to be the novel’s antagonist, but after spending years looking at the world through his eyes, I couldn’t hate him anymore. I loved him. And the parts of the book that hit me the hardest emotionally are now all in his arc.
I think most everything I write will revolve around broken masculinity, because I think it’s how we got where we are in the west. Our whole settler mythology was based on taking: men coming west and taking land from the Native Americans, gold from the hills, animals and trees from the forests, and on and on. Now there isn’t much left to take, so we’ve begun taking from each other, leading to the undercurrent of anger and violence which characterizes the urban and rural divide. I write through this to try to find something new—a more sustainable mythology, a new way of being here, in this unimaginably beautiful place.
I love this idea of your reclaiming the old settler manifest destiny of Take! Take! Take! And then crafting a more sustainable mythology for the west. That settler attitude was always suffused with violence. I was particularly engaged with Ruthie’s relationship to this. At one point, “She wondered if violence attracted her.”; and elsewhere, “she feared the pull she felt toward violence.” What role does violence play in this new mythology? More specifically, how much are guns inextricable or expendable from the modern western experience?
My hope is that we’re in the midst of the long, painful process of extricating ourselves from violence, though at the moment we seem more drawn to it than ever. Violence is easy. It’s an easy emotion to jump to when you’re afraid. It’s an easy answer to a question: If you don’t like someone, if they’re different from you, kill them. If you feel threatened by an animal, kill it. Guns are just an extension of this. So much of our energy in this country is spent on fear. So much money, time, and ingenuity goes into developing weapons and walls. But the reality, which we learn time and again, is that violence only begets more violence. It’s a cycle we’ve been locked in since the first settlers crossed the ocean, then crossed the Mississippi, and to break free from it will take a deep and true reckoning with our history, and a literal laying down of arms. I don’t think guns will ever be completely gone from the west, but until the psychological desire to carry them in anger against our neighbors, until the fantasy of righteous civil warfare fades and becomes repugnant, they will remain at the core of the western experience.
Your point about Rutherford’s arc being the most emotionally difficult part has me considering father-daughter relationships. I fully agree that Ruthie and Rutherford’s dynamic is your story’s beating heart—Rutherford’s girlfriend tells Ruthie that “He loves you so much he doesn’t know what to do with it.” That’s everything! Did you want to explore this type of familial relationship? Or were you interested in examining what it means for a man to hold a deep love yet lack the ways to openly and clearly express it?
Yes, I’m fascinated by the fact that in our culture we’ve created a masculinity with so little opportunity to express love. It’s completely insane to me. If you sit down and watch a hundred westerns, you’ll learn ten thousand ways to kill a man, and not one way to openly express love. Slinging a woman over the back of your horse or murdering the outlaws who violated her doesn’t count. How do we expect there to be any harmony in our society when there’s no harmony in our stories? Love is the other side of anger and violence. It balances out the harshness of this land, of our lives. When we push it down, the darkness takes over. And Rutherford’s redemption comes from the fact that over the years he surrenders bit by bit to his love for his daughter. He stops trying to push it down, and in that surrender a whole new path opens before him.
Many of the characters in Ruthie Fear are preoccupied (if not outright obsessed) with some aspect of this landscape, e.g., The French Brothers, Rutherford, Badger. How much do you allow your own obsessions to influence your writing?
Utterly and completely. My obsessions are, I think, why I write. Ever since I was a little kid walking alone in the woods, I felt an intense need to express the inexpressible. To share that feeling of infinite possibility, of being both tiny and separate, and huge and part of everything.
I know I have to be obsessed with something to write a story or book about it, because it has to stick with me for so long, and challenge my brain so deeply.
Let’s talk about the strange creature in No-Medicine Canyon. Ruthie spots it early in the novel. And later, the creature comes back—a hundredfold in a “regular massacre.” I’m curious as to what this creature could mean, beyond its literal presence—does it have intentional metaphorical value, and is that something you think about while writing?
When I began writing, and dreaming of a career as a writer, I was trying to find where I could fit in to the vast history of literature, particularly the literature of the west. What did I have to say that hadn’t been said a thousand times before? I kept coming back to the sense of the west as a real place but one in which literally anything is possible from moment to moment. That’s how I experience the world and that’s what I set out to write. I wanted to be true to the grit and dirt of small-town life in the 21st Century, and also true to the wild, unfathomable majesty of existence.
We are always teetering on the edge of what we are able to comprehend, and the creatures in the book represent that edge. They are in a sense the valley’s memory, its history, its voice rising up once again, but they are also a manifestation of how little we are capable of understanding. I wanted to write a western without a hero because I never bought into the idea of the lone ranger riding into town and saving the day. We are at the mercy of forces larger than we can see, that move at a pace slower than our generations. We exist in a river we cannot see, and if this pandemic has taught us anything it’s how close to the unimaginable we are every day. How much our world can change in an instant.
The contemporary climate crisis haunts every page of Ruthie Fear. I first thought Ruthie’s approach to the natural world was our model; yet, her beliefs on the coexistence of civilization and nature continually shift throughout. If not Ruthie, what character best exemplifies an attitude toward the environment that readers could consider as a guide?
It was important to me for Ruthie not to have a guide. I think the trope of the wise old man who teaches the kid to hunt and fish in harmony with the nature is another falsity of western literature, it’s another way of pretending our way of being here is OK. I never had a guide like that, and the kids I grew up around didn’t either. Ruthie’s only guide is Rutherford and he’s more lost than she is. Even when she’s five, she understands the world better than he does. We don’t have guides so we have to create them. Ruthie spends her whole life searching, and in the end she finds one in spirit, in finally listening to the valley itself.
On a broader scope, the atmosphere of your novel never let me go. One line (“The usual, everyday apocalypses.”) was such an apt description of the overall mood. How much did you consciously think about maintaining atmosphere in the writing of Ruthie Fear?
That was perhaps the most difficult part of transitioning from short stories to a novel for me. I’d tried before, and each time, over the three or four years it took me to finish a book, I had changed so much that the parts of the book no longer fit together. They read as if they were written by different people. So this consistency of atmosphere was always on my mind, and I think it was the strength of Ruthie’s voice and the strength of my connection to the Bitterroot Valley that allowed me to maintain it over the years. Both those forces were so strong they kept me locked in the world of the book, even while my life changed outside of it.
The language in Ruthie Fear is one of my favorite parts. Each page carries these turns of phrase, such as “The sky was black and close, and each star held the promise of a world of icy perfection.” And I can’t forget this description of the goats in town: “White shaggy heads bent, winter coats falling out, patchy, near-ragged, determined pink tongues. A great patience for licking. Strange, cracked-agate eyes hunting out the particles amid the viscous shimmer of gasoline.” Were there writers or texts that gave you permission to write so richly about the West? What conscious decisions did you make in terms of honing your language?
My favorite writers are those whose work leaps off the edges of what we think is possible for a western: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko, Blood Orchid by Charles Bowden, Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories. I want to take the stories I grew up with and blow them up. Launch them into outer space.
What is it about Montana (and the West in general) that keeps you returning to it as a storytelling heart?
I don’t think its story has been properly told. So much of the western literature I grew up with, and is still being written today, has a bucolic element. Watching a father’s breath as he saddles his horse on a fall morning, riding away across a dawn-lit plain. Romanticizing ranch and settler and cowboy life, even when it pretends not to and never truly reckoning with the scabrous history of the place. Take this in contrast to southern literature, in which past and present are constantly folded together, the living and the dead mingle. The dead awaken. Children are pulled back by the hands of their great-great-grandfathers. I want to write books with consequence, meaning, and I don’t think anyplace better encapsulates modern America than the west. In its current, fractured state, we are the most American part of America, the divides we’ve been feeling for generations have spread east, and our unreckoned history now threatens the entire republic. It feels deeply necessary to me to try to tell its story as truly and fully as I can.